Broadband in Shetland

It was with a wry smile that I read BT’s junk mail circular stuck through my letterbox last week, emblazoned with the question, “Does your broadband provider stand up to the test?” Well, no actually; I’m with BT broadband.

According to pledges from our government, the UK will have the best broadband provision in Europe by the end of the current parliament. Perhaps the soundbite-generating London-centric incumbents wouldn’t be so confident of their prophecy if they’d been accessing the internet from Shetland of late. The broadband service that BT have been offering has been truly abysmal in recent months – grindingly slow connection speeds, service outages and, most frustratingly, a refusal to recognise or admit to the problems.

Islanders have been vocal in their criticism of BT, and Tavish Scott recently put the squeeze on the communications giant. “I want the boss of the company to recognise that BT isn’t providing a service that people expect”, the MSP lambasted. “Shetland expects solutions and BT need to step up to the mark and deliver.”

BT are promising upgrades and enhancements, but this doesn’t seem to be as a desire to provide us with better service, rather it is for fear of losing market share as the SIC, sick of BT’s heel dragging, roll out their own telecommunications strategy. In September this year the council was awarded £367,500 from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to assist with developing a fibre optic link with Faroe.

Given the problems with BT, their ongoing “Race to Infinity” competition seems more than a little ironic. What is The Race to Infinity? I’ll let BT explain: “Over the next five years BT is rolling out superfast fibre optic broadband across the UK. If you’re not on the announced roll out plan The Race to Infinity gives you the opportunity to fast track your area to get BT Infinity next. The five areas with the largest percentage of votes by December 31st 2010 will win the chance to bring superfast broadband to their area.”

That’s all well and good, until you read the small print: “If you get a message which say [sic] that your exchange is not eligible because it serves less than 1000 premises then please do still vote. Although you won’t be able to win the Race to Infinity, BT have made a commitment to actively engage with local communities to see what we can do to bring better broadband to you.”

So if your local phone exchange serves less than 1000 premises, BT don’t reckon you’re eligible, which rules out many rural locations who have been crying out for better broadband for years. And that means only Lerwick is in the running for Shetland. Poor old Fair Isle has one of the UK’s highest per head Race to Infinity votes with 79%, but BT won’t be doing much in the isle beyond “actively engaging” with the community, whatever that may mean.

Also in the small print is that BT are under no obligation to provide the service to winning communities if it isn’t “financially viable” to do so. So what’s the point in the competition? If it’s financially viable, BT will be rolling it out anyway.

Another incongruous aspect of the Race to Infinity is that the website is a rather expensive looking interactive behemoth that takes so long to load if you have a slow connection speed that many people haven’t been able to access it. So you need a fast internet connection to be able to vote for an even faster one.

It seems to be little more than a cheap way for BT to carry out market research and advertise its forthcoming services. They’re even calling on “local campaigners” to “rally their community”, and BT provide comprehensive tools and advice on how to run a local publicity campaign. But BT made a major boob by mistakenly pasting the entire list of people who had registered as campaigners into the CC field on an e-mail, exposing the email addresses of campaigners to over 900 of their peers. BT soon noted the error and apologised. A simple mistake to make perhaps, but not one you would expect from the world’s largest electronic communications companies.

My cynicism deepened with another BT email blunder, when the apparently hapless firm mistakenly sent out a message which outlined the early leaders in the Race, all five of which were in central London and were more than likely to receive fibre broadband anyway. BT quickly dismissed this information as inaccurate.

If all the above isn’t enough to undermine confidence in BT and their Race, PC Pro website recently published the results of their investigation into the voting system. They discovered that entries are not validated, meaning multiple voting is possible. “A local phone book and a few hours on a PC could easily sway the vote, especially for smaller communities where only a couple of hundred votes could tip the balance in their favour.”

The same report states that BT have admitted that “only 38,000 had signed up for its Infinity service, despite fibre covering three million homes.” So that’ll explain the big marketing push.

However, I did vote and I encourage you to do the same at It’ll do no harm to keep reminding BT that Shetland exists.

Article for Shetland Life magazine – December 2010